Portrait of a Woman in Transition


Removing oneself from a difficult situation can be a challenging task. Numerous impediments can infringe on the process, not only making it difficult to execute, but even to launch. That prospect can be exacerbated even further for those in the public eye, their words and deeds scrutinized in virtually every detail. Consequently, transitioning out of such circumstances may be truly daunting, as illustrated in the new hypothetical historical drama, “Spencer” (web site, trailer).

In talking about this film, there’s one important consideration to bear in mind up front: this is a work of speculative fiction involving real-life individuals, not a literal chronicle of historic events. From the very beginning of this picture, an electronic graphic in the lower corner of the screen refers to “Spencer” as a fable about a tragic truth. Thus viewers who expect something else out of this offering will be sorely disappointed. This is a caution that audiences ignore at their peril.

It’s 1991, a decade since the fairytale marriage of England’s Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), heir apparent to the throne. Despite that romantic beginning, things have soured between them. Rumors of affairs, incessant quarreling between Charles and Diana, and disapproval of the Princess as a persistent complainer by the royal family have circulated widely, despite efforts to maintain a blissful, problem-free public façade. However, internal pressures have been mounting for some time, and it has taken quite a toll on the Princess, bringing her near a breaking point.

While on a 1991 Christmas holiday visit with the royal family at Queen Elizabeth II’s Sandringham Estate, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart), already on the outs with her in-laws, seeks to make the best of a tense situation in “Spencer,” now playing in theaters. Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Neon.

Challenges aside, the royal family has gathered at the Sandringham Estate of Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet) for the Christmas holidays, a time during which all controversies have supposedly been declared off-limits in favor of three days of feasting, hunting and celebration. For Diana, however, merely attending the event is a strain on her composure, some might even say her sanity. For some time, she has largely bottled up her feelings, resulting in a stockpile of unexpressed anger and frustration. Her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith), the never-ending expectations of meticulously fulfilling often-silly royal protocols and her own battles with eating disorders have left her exceedingly distraught. Add to that the disdain felt for her by her in-laws, and you’ve got an emotional time bomb waiting to explode.

Given how circumstances have been unfolding, Diana has begun to wonder what the future holds for her marriage and her place within the royal family. The Windsor clan suspects this, too, fearing that her “delusional” state of mind may cause her to go off the deep end, a concern that has prompted the appointment of long-trusted aide Maj. Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) to oversee the weekend’s festivities and to keep the rebel Princess in line. Because of this, however, Diana has come to resent this deliberate attempt at handling. She has even quietly pondered the possibility that she might – either metaphorically or literally – befall a fate not unlike that of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), one of King Henry VIII’s wives, who was executed when she fell into disfavor with the monarch – and who has now begun appearing in visions to the troubled Princess.

To compound matters, Sandringham is located next to the Spencer Estate, Diana’s now-shuttered childhood home, where she enjoyed many years as a fun-loving, carefree child (Kimia Schmidt) and teen (Greta Bücker). She desperately wants to visit the property, if for no other reason than to attempt to relive those fond memories. But, like so many of the other rigid restrictions placed upon her, she’s forbidden from going there due to the dangerous, rundown state of the manor house, yet another frustration that weighs heavily upon her.

This is not to suggest that Diana is without sources of comfort. For example, she relishes her time with her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), both of whom she positively adores (and vice versa). She also enjoys the company of two servants who serve as personal confidantes, her dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and the estate’s head chef, Darren (Sean Harris). She even develops a sort of arm’s-length rapport with Maj. Gregory, though, in true deferential fashion, he keeps a discreet distance, despite efforts to quietly look out for her best interests.

Over the course of the holidays, Diana’s interactions with these kindreds prove quite valuable, most notably in helping her retrieve, strengthen and develop her lost sense of personal power. She refuses to be kept captive by a thoroughly dysfunctional family, making her feelings known in deliberately defiant ways. More than that, though, she also refuses to allow herself to be held hostage by her own fears and apprehensions. She’s resolved to be herself, much as she was in her youth, free from the burdensome restrictions heaped upon her for the sake of appearances, to truly become the independent, self-determining individual she has always wanted to be. That may come at a high cost, but it’s what she needs if she’s to be at peace with herself and the future that awaits her.

While on an impromptu visit to her shuttered childhood home, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) seeks to relive fond memories of her youth in director Pablo Larraín’s new speculative historical drama, “Spencer.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

To characterize Diana’s life as a tragedy, as the film’s opening graphic suggests, is, in some ways, an understatement. To be sure, her accomplishments for the betterment of humanity are undeniable. However, those achievements came about in a very public arena, one that often demanded much of her at a high personal cost. And, when she finally attained the personal independence she craved, her ability to enjoy it was cut short at an all-too-young age. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, she successfully managed to realize it at least for a time by taking the requisite steps needed to reach that goal.

Specifically, this came about by significant adjustments in Diana’s beliefs, and that’s crucial given the role they play in manifesting the reality we experience. It’s not known whether Diana was familiar with this school of thought, yet, as the experiences in this film illustrate, it’s apparent she learned how to make use of it to her benefit. And, considering what she was up against, that was no small order.

At the top of Diana’s list was a need to take back her personal power. The many demands placed on her were so daunting that she lost much of her ability to direct or control her fate. That loss, combined with the many extenuating distractions that burdened her, left her emotionally depleted and decidedly embittered. However, if Diana were to salvage a life for herself, she would have to refocus her beliefs to bring them into line with her wants and needs.

A number of components were part of this process. For starters, she needed to assert her desire to be her authentic self and to concertedly live her life with a sense of personal integrity. This meant following her heart and pursuing the free-spirited nature of her own wishes, not following the stuffy dictates of archaic royal practices and traditions, a maverick streak that ran afoul of her in-laws’ rigid, pompous sensibilities. By ignoring her own needs, she was suffocating under the weight of expectations that didn’t suit her. This stifling of her desires subsequently caused them to accumulate to a dangerous level, prompting them to emerge in an intense, exaggerated manner. It’s understandable why onlookers would be troubled by this. But it’s also understandable how this relentless build-up and denial of her true self negatively affected her. Change obviously had to come, and she wisely chose to make it happen.

To reach that point, though, she had to overcome the fears and limitations that were holding her back. These hindrances are themselves belief based, so those elements had to be altered as part of Diana’s personal transformation. Achieving this required a Herculean effort on her part, given how many forces were working against her. But, despite the many opposing factors, their presence also helped to steel her resolve, to push her in surmounting these fears and limitations to allow her true self to rise up and emerge.

As she attempts to deal with a cheating husband, disapproving in-laws and an array of ridiculous royal protocols, England’s Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) struggles to contain her composure amidst mounting pressures in director Pablo Larraín’s new speculative historical drama, “Spencer.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Neon.

With this piece of the puzzle in place, Diana was able to discern which aspects of her existence needed to be discarded. In particular, this meant leaving behind what no longer served her and embracing the aspects of life that enriched and fulfilled her life. In some cases, that even called for willful acts of defiance to assure that she rid herself of what was now clearly expendable. This is quite a liberating experience for anyone, but it had to be especially gratifying for someone who was saddled with so much extraneous baggage on so many fronts.

Through all of this, Diana was wise enough to recognize that she required guidance in carrying out these plans, and, fortunately, she had many confidantes to draw upon in this regard. This was plainly obvious in her consultations with Maggie and Darren. But it also became apparent in her dealings with her sons, especially young Prince Harry, who, like his mother, could clearly see the writing on the wall where the royal family was concerned (which explains a lot when it comes to the real-life Prince’s very public and intentional disengagement with his relatives). These intimate discussions and interactions helped Diana determine what mattered most in life, giving her the power to make the necessary decisions and alter the essential beliefs required to implement these changes for the better. And isn’t that something we all ultimately want for ourselves?

There’s a big difference between fable and chronicle, and that seems to be the point on which many viewers are misunderstanding this historic “what if” saga about one of the world’s best known and most celebrated icons. At a time when the storied marriage of Charles and Diana was quickly dissolving, we see a frazzled bur determined woman in transition, fighting to protect her own identity and the well-being of her children under the crushing weight of traditions and expectations that did not suit her. However, as this story unfolds, viewers see a side of the beloved People’s Princess that is not always the most flattering or in line with their impressions but nevertheless depicts her honestly as an authentic human being seeking to keep herself from being consumed by the toxic environment surrounding her. Director Pablo Larraín’s latest is thus more of a hypothetical character study, presenting events and situations where the kinds of issues Diana was experiencing are depicted despite a lack of verified substantiation. To be sure, some of those incidents are a little melodramatic, with symbolism that can be a trifle heavy-handed and obvious at times. Yet, when considered within the narrative context in which they’re included, it’s understandable why they were made part of the story. In this way, much of what the filmmaker has done here for Diana is similar to what he did for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy  in “Jackie” (2016), both pictures being about women who experienced tremendous tragedy in their lives and how they attempted to cope with their circumstances.

The crowning element of this film, of course, is the stellar performance of Kristen Stewart, a portrayal that easily makes clear why she’s currently the leading contender to win this year’s Oscar for best actress. But there are many other fine attributes here, too, from production design to costumes to an excellent supporting cast and more. This theatrical release reinforces filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s status as one of the best directors working in the business today. It’s indeed unfortunate that this offering has become so misunderstood in a number of circles, but it truly is one of this year’s finest, as long as viewers appreciate why it is the way it is.

The Princess of Wales was an inspiration for many. However, it’s often overlooked that she was also a real-life person, one with her own faults, challenges and needs. As a larger-than-life figure, though, many forget that individuals such as Diana are fundamentally much like the rest of us, and they deserve the right to engage in the kinds of personal pursuits we all readily enjoy. Making the transition from one’s public self to the private side of life might be challenging, but it’s a birthright we’re all entitled to enjoy, even when one is a princess. Diana may not have had much of an opportunity to fully savor such a possibility, but we can only hope that she enjoyed what she experienced – just as it should be for any of us.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Celebrating a Life of Living One’s Passions

It’s been said that life is too short to spend it doing things we dislike, something that many of us can probably attest to. The thought of living out our days engaged in what gives us pleasure is one that far too many people speculate about but never see through. But it is possible if we put our hearts and minds to it, as evidenced by the life experiences of someone who followed her own path and believed in fulfilling her dreams, a story told in the delightful new documentary, “Julia” (web site, trailer).

Who would have thought that a middle-aged woman with a lilting voice, an eccentric demeanor and looks that didn’t exactly match those of an idealized 1960s housewife would become a pop culture icon? But that’s precisely what happened with chef Julia Child (1912-2004), who brought the joy of cooking and eating into the mainstream at a time when most Americans gave it precious little thought. Through the publication of her seminal cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking with collaborators Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and her myriad television appearances, she brought a new appreciation for the art of the kitchen into the lives of many, serving as meticulous instructor, courageous mentor and eclectic culinary tour guide. In the process, she also single-handedly gave birth to the television cooking show and lent ample credibility to the value of the struggling public television network. And her infamous love of butter at a time when most health care professionals were calling it the Great Satan helped contribute to re-evaluations of this once-taboo food (and sent margarine stocks tumbling). These are noteworthy accomplishments for someone who didn’t discover her true calling in life until well into middle age.

Julia Child shows off one of her signature pastries on an episode of Julia Child and Company as seen in the charming new documentary, “Julia.” Photo by Jim Scherer, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

This superb, finely detailed documentary about the French Chef treats viewers to the antics of a truly American original, one whose animated and quirky presentation style was as delicious as what she was preparing in her kitchen. But this signature manner didn’t come early in life for Julia. After graduating college, she explored various options for fulfilling her sense of adventure, a quality that set her apart from many other women brought up in traditional, conservative backgrounds. Following the tried and true was not for her. She wanted something different and that was truly her own.

Julia’s first grand adventure came when she joined the OSS, a forerunner to the CIA. She worked as a secretary in Asia during World War II, an experience that led to her meeting the love of her life, Paul Child. Julia fell madly in love with him and followed him everywhere in his various posts, first in Asia as a military man and later in Europe as a State Department official. She thoroughly enjoyed the diversity of her life and travels, as well as the artistic and intellectual stimulation that came from her involvement with Paul. But it wasn’t until he was posted to Paris when her life finally came into focus.

With Julia’s first taste of French food, she instantly fell in love, a romance to rival that of her relationship with her husband. She became so enthralled with French cuisine that she enrolled in the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, where, as a woman, she stood out in a room full of male students. However, Julia was determined to succeed, and so she hung in there, despite the obvious prejudices directed her way.

While living in Paris, Julia Child (center right) honed her cooking skills while under the tutelage of Chef Bugnard (center left) at the Cordon Bleu School, one of her experiences detailed in the new documentary, “Julia.” Photo by Paul Child, © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Not long thereafter, Julia met her colleagues Simone and Louisette. Together they launched an impromptu cooking school of their own, Ecole Des Trois Gourmandes, primarily for Parisian housewives who wanted to become more skilled in the kitchen. But this was just a prelude to a bigger project. Simone and Louisette were compiling a French cookbook for an American audience, but, to make it work, they needed the assistance of someone who could translate the text and recipes properly and put the information in a context that homemakers across the pond could understand. The result was a culinary magnum opus that the trio’s original publisher rejected but that was subsequently picked up by another house, where editor Judith Jones helped turn the unconventional manuscript into a blockbuster title whose popularity and sales have persisted to this day.

With the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia made an appearance on a book review show on the public broadcasting affiliate in Boston. It was a program that mostly featured stuffy intellectual conversations and that few people watched. However, when Julia appeared on the show, she included a cooking demonstration with her interview, a move that proved to be pure gold, both for her and the show. The episode was a hit, helping to pave the fortunes of the eccentric chef and the underappreciated TV network. Before long, Julia had her own show, The French Chef, the first of many. She was quickly off and running.

In the ensuing years, Julia became a staple on public broadcasting, eventually reaching a national audience. She would go on to write additional books and eventually join the team of Good Morning America, enabling her to tap into an even larger viewership. In doing so, she celebrated the art of cooking, winning over countless converts to a subject that was once largely ignored by American audiences. And she did it all with flair, panache and her own brand of whimsical humor.

Julia Child (center), with colleagues Simone Beck (left) and Louisette Bertholle (right) at their impromptu cooking school, Ecole Des Trois Gourmandes, peel vegetables while preparing for class as seen in “Julia.” Photo by Paul Child, © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Julia also made a name for herself off-screen. She was a committed activist on several fronts, becoming an ardent voice for the pro choice movement and AIDS victims. She was also a generous supporter of aspiring chefs, helping them to become more widely known and in developing their craft. But such mentorship was typical for Julia, as she incessantly pleaded with her audiences to approach cooking courageously, without fear of the process or even when it came to making mistakes, developments that she believed could always somehow be fixed. Indeed, she made quite an inspiring impression on those who followed her, and what a legacy she left behind.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all unreservedly follow our passions? Well, actually, that’s entirely possible as long as we believe in the possibility, for that’s the first step in realizing our dreams. And, for her part, Julia was truly a master at this. Even if she was unaware of this school of thought, and even if she often approached her dreams with an outwardly unassuming attitude, she nevertheless employed the principles of this practice with the skill and artistry of a culinary virtuoso.

In making this happen, Julia pushed the envelope of creativity, embracing beliefs that overcame any limitations that might have held her back. Of course, that came somewhat easily for her, given that she freely and totally gave in to her passions, pursuing them and the joy and power associated with them with unbridled abandon, qualities that became more than apparent in all of her endeavors.

Never far from the camera, Julia Child (left) poses for a picture taken by photographer Jim Scherer (right) in a photo shoot for her book, The Way To Cook, as depicted in the engaging new biographical documentary, “Julia.” Photo by Jim Scherer, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Julia set quite an example in this regard. And it’s one that can be translated into virtually any pursuit, provided we make use of the same principles and embrace the same kinds of fundamental beliefs as she did. We may not all wish to become master chefs, but we can certainly seek to become proficient in other endeavors requiring comparable levels of mastery, be it painting, writing, athletics or virtually any other venture. This truly is a classic case of following one’s heart and relishing the enjoyment that comes from it.

But the example Julia set didn’t end here. She also inspired others by taking on the task of cooking without letting fear get in the way. She found that many aspiring cooks were intimidated by the ways of the kitchen, that they were deathly afraid of making mistakes. Julia never let this stop her, though, and she made that point plainly known through her writings and television appearances. She routinely encouraged her followers to step up to culinary challenges without hesitation, for, if fear were allowed to creep into the mix, disaster could indeed follow. Instead, she urged readers and viewers to approach cooking courageously, without fear. She was not one to wallow in disappointment over kitchen errors. In fact, she saw missteps as learning opportunities so as not to repeat them or even to use one’s creativity to make lemonade from proverbial lemons. Indeed, do-overs were part of kitchen life and shouldn’t be viewed as the end of the world – that is, as long as we put beliefs in place to make such happy endings possible.

Julia Child poses with one of her favorite culinary ingredients, chicken, as seen in the new biographical documentary “Julia” from directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Photo by Brian Leatart, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Taken together, these qualities combined to forge Julia’s destiny. She may have been a little late coming to it compared to most of us, but eventually she did. And, in doing so, she lived out her mission to be her best, truest self for the betterment of herself and others. Julia took a task that was generally seen as mundane and routine and elevated it to an art form, one worthy of celebration, appreciation and joie de vivre. She revolutionized our notions about cooking and eating and all for the better. She showed us what joy food can bring into our lives and our relationships with others, all served up with hefty helpings of happiness – and, of course, butter.

To call Julia one of a kind is indeed an understatement, and this film makes that abundantly clear. As they did in their documentary “RBG” (2018) about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West serve up another fine offering, a sumptuous buffet of all things Julia, including ample archive footage, recent interviews with friends and colleagues, and gorgeously filmed food that will send viewers on a beeline to the nearest gourmet restaurant upon leaving the theater. Fans of Julia and the art of cooking owe it to themselves to see this lovingly assembled tribute to an icon who accomplished and contributed so much and made it look easy – and fun. The film has been playing at film festivals and in limited theatrical release.

Cooking is an activity that can be viewed as a burdensome chore (something to be dutifully but unenthusiastically checked off our list of daily tasks) or as a joy to be richly savored (especially when one gets to eat the finished product!). Julia showed us the difference, as well as how to go about it in what many of us would likely consider the preferred manner. And, what’s more, she did it with fun, eccentricity and many undeniably blissful rolls of the eyes. Given that, then, one can’t help but ask, “Why wouldn’t someone want to live his or her life like that?” Good question, if you ask me. We’d all probably be a lot better off if we followed Ms. Child’s example and spent our days immersed in what gives us pleasure. After all, when the clock runs out, we wouldn’t want to look back on our lives and wish we’d used more butter and less margarine.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Wrapping Up the 2021 St. Louis Film Festival


The Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival recently completed its 2021 edition in its first-ever hybrid format with theatrical and virtual screening options. This flexible approach made it possible for viewers to screen over 90% of its more than 400 feature films and shorts in the traditional manner at multiple locations or from the comfort of their own homes. While some of the virtual presentations were available in Missouri and neighboring Illinois only, many others could be streamed nationwide, making it possible for movie fans to see some excellent films without being in metro St. Louis, an increasingly popular viewing option for many film festivals (and one that I heartily applaud).

Thanks to this format, I was able to screen a great number of films – 23 in all. The festival’s 30th edition had its share of fine offerings, especially in the documentary genre. Below are summary reviews of some of my favorites from this year’s festival.

“The Berrigans: Devout and Dangerous” (USA) (5/5)

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In times of war and great social challenges, it can be difficult to remain devoted to one’s principles – no matter how strongly we feel about them – when prevailing circumstances threaten to curtail our freedoms and our ability to express our feelings about them. Yet there are courageous, unflappable individuals who refuse to let such conditions stop them, as evidenced by the protests led by activists Philip and Daniel Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. In this superb documentary about the lives of these three heroic figures (two priests and a nun who walked their talk when it came to their Catholic values), director Susan Hagedorn chronicles the efforts of these anti-war advocates who destroyed draft records as a means of protesting US involvement in the Vietnam War, along with their activities in the civil rights movement and the early days of the AIDS crisis. They paid dearly for their actions, spending considerable time in prison, but they could not ignore their conscience in carrying out these acts of deliberate defiance. Through a wealth of archive materials and contemporary interviews with family members and those who worked with them (such as actor Martin Sheen and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg), these three activists brilliantly come to life, both as advocates for their causes and as compassionate, committed individuals, all captured in a highly personal way. This material is supplemented with voiceover narrations of the brothers’ writings read by Liam Neeson and Bill Pullman, adding an intimate and thoughtful dimension to their portrayals. We owe much to these virtuous champions, and this eminently moving film makes that abundantly clear. Winner of the festival’s Interfaith Award for best documentary feature.

“A Sexplanation” (USA) (5/5)

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In a culture so pervasively obsessed with sex as ours, it’s amazing that it’s simultaneously so hung up and ignorant about the subject as well. That’s an intriguing paradox filmmaker Alex Liu wanted to explore. So, at age 36, the gay Asian-American director decided to make a documentary about it, one that he hoped would shed some light on this for society at large, not to mention himself, too. As someone who grew up with a shameful outlook about sex, both in terms of his individual orientation and the subject of eroticism in general, he wanted to get to the bottom of this conundrum, especially in light of his apparently robust libido as an adult. In his singularly humorous deep dive into this matter, he interviews a wide range of experts on sexuality and those who have contributed to shaping our collective views on the subject, including researchers, educators, counselors, scientists and religious figures, as well as family members, friends, and everyday men and women on the street across all ages, ethnicities and sexual preferences. The result is an eye-opening cinematic experience, one that offers significant insights and enlightened solutions for addressing willful bashfulness and broad-based ignorance, all served up in a delightfully whimsical, frequently hilarious offering punctuated with clever animation and frank though lighthearted conversations. The filmmaker’s debut feature is a real treat that leaves little to the imagination while pointedly but tactfully informing audiences of all ages on so many different fronts.

“Target: St. Louis Vol. 1” (USA) (5/5)

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If watching this damning indictment of reprehensible clandestine activities by the US government in the 1950s and ’60s doesn’t leave you thoroughly appalled, you must not have a conscience, a soul or a shred of humanity in your being. Director Damien D. Smith’s debut documentary feature tells the story of how the US military, in conjunction with various defense contractors, intentionally exposed residents of a predominantly African-American housing project in St. Louis to repeated open air dustings of toxic chemicals to determine what effects the substances would have on them, all without their knowledge or consent. The result was a host of serious illnesses, including rampant forms of cancer, that affected individuals at the time and many years later. What’s worse, because of legal technicalities, victims were effectively unable to sue any of the parties involved. Through interviews with survivors of the testing, as well as researchers and advocates working to bring the truth to light, the filmmaker has produced a shocking release that is bound to leave viewers incensed about what transpired – especially when it’s revealed that this sort of deplorable Third Reich-style form of experimentation may be only one such example of what our government had done (or could still be doing) without telling us. This is a powerful wake-up call, folks.


“Alien on Stage” (UK) (4/5)

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When an amateur British theater company decides to do something different for its annual holiday charity production, the crew goes out on a limb to stage a work that’s truly out of this world – a theatrical adaptation of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi cinematic classic, “Alien.” As audacious as this undertaking might be, however, the play’s initial run in the company’s hometown of Dorset is a flop. But, when the show catches the attention of documentary directors Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer, the company’s fates change dramatically. The filmmakers help the amateur troupe secure an opportunity to stage a performance of the play in London’s West End – and to a sold-out crowd at that. Thus begins this chronicle of an unlikely production brought to life both on stage and in this hilariously offbeat documentary. While the film could use a little more background about the principal players, this wickedly funny saga about a horror classic transformed into a campy romp provides meticulous behind-the-scenes detail, intercut with footage from the film original to provide context and comparison. Most of all, though, this is a fitting tribute to all the underdogs out there who are willing to stick their necks out and attempt the untried, all the while having fun and ultimately attaining unexpected yet much deserved success.

“Americanish” (USA) (4/5)

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Though somewhat uneven, sometimes predictable and occasionally formulaic, this otherwise-delightful rom-com about the budding love lives of two Pakistani-American sisters (Aizzah Fatima, Salena Qureshi) and their immigrant cousin (Shenaz Treasury), along with the intrusive meddling of their overbearing mother/aunt (Lillete Dubey), pleases on virtually all counts. This charming debut feature from writer-director Iman K. Zawahry explores the triumphs and challenges of balancing career, impending marriage, entrenched tradition and evolving values, and it does so with insight, candor and gentle humor, successfully fusing the traditional romance and cross-cultural assimilation genres. Watch for more from this filmmaker given the great start she has had with this release.

“Delicate State” (USA) (4/5)

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Imagine if you were parents-to-be, blissfully happy about the impending blessed event, when suddenly a devastating civil war breaks out. That’s what happens to a young middle class couple living in an unidentified American city as they await the birth of their first child, all the details of which are meticulously recorded in a video diary filmed during the increasingly troubled pregnancy. After a somewhat slow and slightly unfocused start, writer-actor-director Paula Rhodes’s debut feature soon changes lanes and tells a chilling story that grows ever-more compelling as it unfolds, leaving viewers on edge as they witness developments taking place in a simulated real-time context. The picture brings an added touch of realism to the narrative as it was filmed during the actor-director’s own pregnancy, accompanied by real-life husband Charlie Bodin as the protagonist’s co-star. The result is a startlingly eclectic mix of unnerving terror and relentless hope fused into one story with an all-too-familiar sociopolitical backdrop. Handily, this is one of the most unusual releases I’ve seen in some time, yet it offers us a potent cautionary tale that we had better take seriously if we expect our society to survive – or otherwise run the risk of lawless, uncontrolled collapse.

“A Matter of Perspective” (“Eine Sache der Perspektive”) (Austria) (4/5)

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How we perceive the nature of a particular situation ultimately depends on the perspective we each hold about it, even when those outlooks don’t agree with one another. But how can that be if the scenario is fundamentally “the same” for all concerned? That’s where the fallacy of this notion becomes apparent, and director Gerda Leopold’s second feature does a fine job of illustrating this through a collection of interwoven stories (mostly of romantic and relationship matters) involving 10 characters whose paths cross in myriad synchronistic ways. What’s most intriguing about these interactions, however, is how diversely the various participants in these scenarios view their circumstances compared to one another, despite their mutual involvement in them. Ironically, one of the film’s greatest strengths is its reluctance to provide definitive resolution to many of the narrative’s incidents, reinforcing the notion that, given differing perspectives, there often is no set answer that applies across the board. Admittedly there are some elements of this Austrian production that seem to be somewhat truncated, but that’s a small price to pay for an otherwise-engaging film, one that features a fine ensemble cast and some inventive camera work, with cinematography aptly befitting the picture’s subject matter. A delicious indie gem.

“My So-Called Selfish Life” (USA) (4/5)

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A woman’s life isn’t complete until she has a child and becomes a mother, right? Well, that may be the traditional view, but, is it still true today? And, for those who have opted to go the childless route, why is there such a strong backlash against their decision? Don’t they, as adults, have the right to make up their own minds? In light of this, director Therese Schechter, who has intentionally chosen to forego motherhood, decided to make a documentary on the subject, examining all of the implications involved, including those of a cultural, personal, familial, vocational and lifestyle nature. Through interviews with physicians, sociologists, researchers, advocates and women who have purposely chosen to go childless, intercut with clever animation and clips from movies and TV, the filmmaker presents an insightful look at the options today’s women have – choices that previous generations largely lacked, an outlook that enabled the prevailing view about motherhood to become so firmly entrenched. While this offering may ruffle some feathers among traditionalists, the film nevertheless gives a big, polite middle finger to those who try to dictate terms to women based on arguments that amount to little more than “Because I said so.” A real eye-opener, especially for those who continue to believe they have no choice in the matter.

“Shellfish” (USA) (4/5)

Web site Trailer

Mixing storytelling techniques can be a risky proposition when making a film, but, when they’re fused seamlessly and in the right proportions, they can combine to work some cinematic magic. So it is in director Hunter Hopewell’s debut feature about a student filmmaker (Hopewell) who attempts to shoot a feature movie excerpt in a week’s time in order to win a competition awarding a generous production grant. Working with a ragtag filming crew while trying to conceal his efforts from his parents (who push him to give up this “foolish quest” and get a “real” job), the young auteur struggles against a host of production problems and comically insurmountable setbacks. The film successfully blends live action, stop action animation, claymation and a variety of other techniques to create a unique mix that all work together well, often yielding loads of laugh-out-loud moments. While it’s true that the film attempts to fuse a few too many narrative threads and occasionally tries a little too hard to get its laughs, on balance, Hopewell has come up with an entertaining, professionally made and surprisingly touching project on a shoestring budget. If you’re looking for a belly-full of chuckles, check this one out. Winner of the festival’s Emerging Director Award.

“Soy Cubana” (Cuba/USA) (4/5)

Web site Film Clip

How frustrating it must be to have talent – and a tremendous gift to give the world – only to be thwarted by bureaucratic red tape and needless, outdated government restrictions. So it has been for many Cuban artists looking to showcase their talents abroad. Fortunately, though, there have been some lucky breakthroughs, such as those that occurred during a narrow window from 2015 to 2017, when cultural exchange relations between the US and Cuba were briefly relaxed, enabling artists like the Vocal Vidas – a Cuban a capella quartet – to slip through a visitation window that allowed the talented foursome to give three performances in Los Angeles. The process was not an easy one to negotiate, as the window of opportunity was in the process of closing, but the Vidas were able to pass through in time, to the benefit of everyone who saw them perform live and to those viewing this documentary about their storied odyssey. Directors Ivaylo Getov and Jeremy Ungar have assembled a delightful chronicle of their journey, including footage of their performances, as well as the complex process of securing visitation visas to perform in the US. The film features ample footage of their singing, both in the US and Cuba, as well as insights into their respective lives, both as performers and as individuals struggling to get by in the fiscally strapped island nation. A truly delightful, uplifting, inspiring watch.

“Voodoo Macbeth” (USA) (4/5)

Web site Trailer

When the Roosevelt Administration launched the Federal Theatre Project in 1935 as part of the government-sponsored New Deal program, that initiative included a Negro Unit specifically aimed at developing African-American theatrical productions. One of that unit’s most auspicious undertakings was the staging of an all-Black cast adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Haiti instead of Scotland. To get this version of the play into production, unit heads Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) and John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman) hired a 20-year-old neophyte director named Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges) to bring it to life. Welles had a bold vision for this Harlem-based production, but he encountered endless challenges in making it happen, including multiple casting issues, funding obstacles initiated by a Congressman (Hunter Bodine) who claimed the play was “Communist propaganda” and the director’s own obsessive, self-destructive behavior. Nevertheless, the cast and crew soldiered on, despite these obstacles, to put their own spin on this classic tale. This docudrama, a project of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, was written by a team of eight students and shot by a crew of 10 top graduate students, a collaboration that has resulted in a fine finished product. Some of the writing is a bit over the top at times, and some of the acting is admittedly rather hammy (and not in the Shakespearean sequences, where one would most likely expect it), but the casting overall is quite solid, as are the period piece production values. It’s gratifying to see a student project turn out as polished as this one has, making it a film that deservedly warrants a general release to reach a wider audience.

For a summary of all of the films that I screened at the festival, click here. Full reviews of select films to follow.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.